Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Gaithersburg Mayor and Council to discuss Cal Atlantic, Kentlands Square projects tonight (Photos)

Gaithersburg's Mayor and Council will discuss two significant development projects in the city at tonight's meeting at City Hall, at 7:30 PM. They are the Cal Atlantic and Kentlands Square projects.

The Cal Atlantic project will consist of 106 single-family homes (of which a majority are actually townhomes) on a site along Darnestown Road that has been annexed into the city. Most of the site is the Johnson's Nursery property, along with a strip mall.

Saul Centers is proposing adding three additional commerical buildings, with 16000 SF of retail space, to Kentlands Square. The company says market conditions are ripe for the additional retail. Several Gaithersburg residents have written to question whether there is enough demand for more retail at this point.

The Mayor and Council will also discuss the results of its biennial citizen survey. 363 people responded to the survey, out of 2,200 residents who received it in the mail.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Chelsea Manning to take on Ben Cardin in Maryland U.S. Senate Democratic primary

North Bethesda resident
would be first
transgender member of

What should have been a sleepy stagger over the finish line for Senator Ben Cardin (D - Maryland) has turned into a battle royale with national implications overnight. The Maryland Democratic political machine and Republicans alike melted down upon hearing Red Maryland report that Chelsea Manning has entered the race. Manning, a North Bethesda resident, is best known for her role in providing damaging information about U.S. actions and operations during the Iraq War to Wikileaks in 2010. She was serving as an Army intelligence analyst deployed to Iraq at the time.
Incumbent U.S. Senator
Ben Cardin (D-Maryland)
Cardin has essentially ignored Manning's announcement so far. He will have plenty of money, and remains very popular among Democrats, despite having no notable legislative achievements. Manning is making a clear appeal to progressives, in a state where the Democratic party's progressive wing is growing restless with the throwback leadership of their establishment. At the same time, many in both parties consider her a traitor whose actions disqualify her from office.

Manning can capitalize on national attention and money. The victory of Danica Roem in Virginia last November showed just how much national money was out there for a minor state legislative race. Manning would be the first transgender U.S. Senator, if elected. That's a strong selling point, when 2018 is expected to be another Year of the Woman in politics.

A campaign video and fundraising page have been posted by Manning's campaign in the last 24 hours.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Discovery move is all about why Knoxville beats MoCo in business climate

Discovery Communications is moving from Silver Spring to New York City because it is a content company? Not quite. Unless you believe they film their Shark Week programs in giant water tanks on the seventh floor of their Silver Spring headquarters - as many embarrassed Montgomery County elected officials apparently do. Put aside the spin in Discovery's press release, and carefully study their public statements to media yesterday, and you'll find the real story here is A) why Knoxville has a better business climate than Montgomery County, and B) the big Discovery "move" may actually be a big layoff of extraneous workers, as the company merges with Scripps.

The County's spin, of course, is that there "was nothing Montgomery County could do to retain Discovery." Discovery is a content company! They need to be near other content and advertising companies in New York! Aren't taxes terrible in New York City? Isn't the cost of living even higher in New York City?

Ah - but there's the key point. Discovery's move isn't about New York in the end. Analyze Discovery's public statements, and you find there's no certainty as to how many jobs are going to New York City. Some key high-level positions had already been moved to Discovery's current New York base of operations. Some positions at Scripps in Knoxville will also be moved to New York in 2019.

Scripps already has over 1000 employees in Knoxville doing a lot of the business and administrative jobs that many Discovery employees are doing now in Silver Spring. Again, read Discovery's statements carefully - they don't mention x-number of jobs moving from Silver Spring to Knoxville (or to New York). It could be that Montgomery County not only suffers the shame of losing one of its few Fortune 500 companies, but almost certainly also winds up with hundreds of unemployed Discovery workers as a result. Knoxville will gain all of the jobs Discovery needs from Silver Spring, but not likely all 1300.

Knoxville has everything Montgomery County's elected officials keep telling us we don't need - lower taxes, suburban living, and highway infrastructure. Discovery's press release noted "infrastructure" as a key reason they chose Knoxville. It's very easy to see why:
Discovery's new HQ in
Knoxville is right at an
interchange with I-40
The new Discovery campus in Knoxville is right on Interstate 40, a major cross-country route from California to North Carolina. In fact, they've got an on-ramp right next to them.
Discovery's new Knoxville HQ
is only 18 minutes by car from
the airport
Discovery's future Knoxville campus is also only 18 minutes by car from McGhee-Tyson Airport. Try getting to an airport in 18 minutes from Montgomery County (Hint: You can't).

Tennessee has no income tax. Property taxes are about half of what they are in Montgomery County, even on a million-dollar home. The Volunteer State's sales tax rate is 7%. There is no estate tax, and after a recent change in Tennessee's tax law, the "Hall Tax" on interest and dividend income is being phased out by 2021. The latter change is simply the capstone on why Tennessee's tax structure is so business (and worker) friendly. Robin Ficker was absolutely correct yesterday when he cited taxes as a factor in the Discovery move.

When you consider that neither Discovery, nor New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, cited any specific number of jobs moving to New York yesterday, the picture becomes more clear. Some key positions may well move to New York, and Cuomo and Mayor Bill Blasio can celebrate winning the "global headquarters."

But Discovery is the real winner here. By moving the real nuts-and-bolts of their company to Knoxville, they and their employees (however many actually get moved) will both save bigly on their annual tax bills. Significant layoffs that would have been bad publicity for the company in Silver Spring now get hidden and deodorized by a "big move" and merger.

Montgomery County, as usual, is the real loser. Not only has no major corporation relocated its headquarters here in twenty years, but now we've lost one of the few Fortune 500 companies we had.  We've lost the taxes Discovery and many of their employees paid.

This is a major financial blow to Silver Spring, as well. Residential buildings continue to replace workplaces in downtown Silver Spring at a rapid pace. There are now fewer workers eating lunch at restaurants as a result. Residents of new apartment buildings in Silver Spring are dining out for lunch in downtown Washington, Tysons, and other growing job centers in Northern Virginia. Turning the Discovery HQ into an apartment building won't help matters.
Discovery's new low-rise,
suburban office park campus
in Knoxville (Google Maps)
If you look at the new Discovery national headquarters campus in Knoxville, it's just that - a suburban office park campus. Nearby are roads and commercial strips that look like Rockville or Gaithersburg. Much like Apple, Google and other successful corporations, Discovery has traded urban for suburban.
It looks more like Rock Spring
than downtown Bethesda -
adjacent water bodies included
Just beyond either side of the suburban commercial area where Discovery will be are single-family home neighborhoods along tree-lined streets. Sure, certain companies are willing to take a financial hit to be "downtown" on a transit station. Discovery obviously isn't one of them, and neither is Apple or Google. Montgomery County's office parks aren't the problem - it's our anti-business County Council, taxes and gridlocked transportation system that are the problems.
Single-family homes on
tree-lined streets near the
new Discovery HQ in
Knoxville (Google Maps)

Montgomery County can lower its taxes. After throwing record amounts of money at Montgomery County Public Schools in recent years, and the results only getting worse by the year, we know spending money is not the solution to the decline in our public schools. Wasteful spending was epitomized last year by the Council spending over $20000 on a security camera system I was able to find for less than $1000 online - including installation. Imagine how many other un-itemized expenditures like this one there are in the operating and capital budgets, and the potential for cuts becomes crystal clear.

Attempts to blame Gov. Larry Hogan for the Discovery debacle only open the door to blaming our County Council for the loss. "The first County Council to lose a Fortune 500" certainly has a nice ring to it. When apologists say, "We were going to lose Discovery no matter what the incentive package was," they are actually correct. Without a business-friendly tax system, without a new Potomac River crossing to provide an 18-minute trip to the airport, without a functioning and complete master plan highway system, and without elected officials who understand international business in the 21st century, Montgomery County is always going to be the loser.

Friday, January 5, 2018

MoCo Council's war on the homeless spreads across the pond

The Montgomery County Council's war on the homeless, including a proposal to ban panhandling, appears to be contagious. A British official is demanding the Thames Valley police remove homeless people from the streets before the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, scheduled to take place on May 19 at Windsor Castle.

Our County Council has set a similar deadline. Claiming they will end homelessness by housing every single homeless person by December of this year, they conveniently are seeking to pass laws criminalizing homelessness, in an apparent scheme to drive the homeless away - - to make it appear they were successful.

But what's so interesting about the British case, is that Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Council leader Simon Dudley's talking points are almost identical to those of our Montgomery County Council. "A large number of adults that are begging in Windsor are not in fact homeless," Dudley wrote to police, "and if they are homeless they are choosing to reject all support services ... In the case of homelessness amongst this group, it is therefore a voluntary choice.”

The Montgomery County Council, during their last attempt to pass the panhandling law, claimed that the homeless asking for money in Montgomery County are actually "professional panhandlers" who travel here from outside the County each day. They provided no evidence to support their claim. A national non-profit organization condemned the County's proposal at that time, writing that the Council was trying to "criminalize homelessness."

Similarly, homeless advocates in Windsor blasted Dudley for his claims. “For someone to ask for loose change, your self-esteem is at its lowest," Murphy James of the Windsor Homelessness Project told The Guardian. "No one does this from choice. We shouldn’t be demonising these people, but asking them what we can do to help.”

A public hearing will be held on the panhandling ban on January 30 at 1:30 PM at the County Council Office Building.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Montgomery County murders spike 31% in 2017

Long considered a low-crime jurisdiction, Montgomery County experienced a 31% increase in homicides last year.  Surprisingly, the Washington Post chose to run a "fake news" headline Sunday. A front-page splash read, "Killings fell in D.C. area in 2017." Only those who bothered to read the article on the inside pages would learn that murders actually increased in Montgomery County in 2017.

It appears the Post used the misleading headline to protect the soft-on-crime Montgomery County Council, who have proven impotent to stop the surge of violent crime in the County. While murders spiked in Montgomery, Fairfax had no increase, D.C. had fewer, and Prince William County's homicide rate plunged from 22 to 4. Increasing crime has so embarrassed Montgomery County elected officials, they have resorted to violating the County's open data law, by sabotaging the crime datasets.

A month-long crime data outage last summer only ended after I publicized the illegal blackout. Then block numbers were removed, making the data nearly useless for lengthy roads. Next, they restored block numbers, but disabled the sorting function of the date columns, so that you can only access random crimes from 2016 no matter which option you select for starting or ending date. Finally, as of this morning, I can no longer use the mouse to slide the columns right or left, only the keypad on my keyboard.

Ironically, the jurisdictions whose homicide rates declined last year provide more and more-accessible crime data to their residents than Montgomery County. We need new elected leadership that can stop the trend of rising homicides, not one that resorts to childish tactics like blocking crime data from the public. Sad!

MoCo exec candidate David Blair sets up campaign headquarters

David Blair, a Democratic candidate for Montgomery County Executive, has established a campaign headquarters in the ground floor of The Sterling, at 11700 Old Georgetown Road near the White Flint Metro station and across from Pike & Rose. With the primary election just over six months away, there was some activity inside the office even on New Year's Eve this past weekend.

The office has a high-visibility location along the heavily-traveled Rockville Pike corridor, where commuters stuck in traffic will have ample time to notice the Blair headquarters. Blair entered the race in November.

Founder and former CEO of Catalyst Health Solutions, and a lifelong resident of Montgomery County, Blair brings considerable personal wealth to the table. He is a minority partner in Monumental Sports and Entertainment, and along with his wife, recently opened Badlands Playspace in Rockville. Blair will be a strong contender for support within the business community. He has identified education, economic development and transportation as his key issues.

Blair was a co-founder of Empower Montgomery, a tax-exempt non-profit organization that advocates for open primaries that allow independents to vote for state and local office nominating contests, easing voter restrictions, expanding early and absentee voting, and engaging communities with low rates of voter participation. He has stepped aside from that role to run, leaving co-founders Charles Nulsen III, the president of Washington Property Company, and Chris Bruch, president and COO of The Donohoe Companies, to lead the organization, which has announced plans to be active in this year's County elections.

The Democratic executive race, into which yet more candidates may enter, is still developing. There are several lanes to victory. Blair and Bill Frick will compete in the "outsider" lane, despite Frick's longstanding time in the House of Delegates; Frick can honestly claim to have had no role in the disastrous County Council term that will end this November. Both are arguing for a more business-friendly atmosphere, in a county currently notorious nationwide as hostile to business.

Roger Berliner, Rose Krasnow and George Leventhal are jousting for support from the currently-ruling Montgomery County political cartel, a slim faction of the local Democratic party fueled by developer donations. All three played a major role in disastrous sector plans such as Westbard, which directly led to voters decisively approving term limits in November 2016.

Marc Elrich, despite a perplexing "Yes" vote on the Westbard plan, enters the race as the most popular Democrat in Montgomery County, as confirmed by his vote total in 2014. He brings strong support from labor, true progressives, civic associations and residents concerned about the impact of urbanization on existing neighborhoods, roads and schools. Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney predicted this past weekend that Elrich will be the winner in June and November.

The Democratic winner - as it stands for the moment - will take on Republican Robin Ficker, who has vocally opposed the tax hikes and development decisions that so angered residents into their term limit vote in 2016.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

MoCo Council prevents Robin Ficker from testifying on tax bill

Email from Montgomery County Council
President Hans Riemer to Robin Ficker on
Christmas night; there is no mandated limit
on how many speakers can testify at a hearing
Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer rejected County resident Robin Ficker's request to testify at a hastily-scheduled public hearing Tuesday on a bill that would allow pre-payment of property taxes before December 31. Ficker is running against several members of the Council for the office of County Executive. This was a clear conflict-of-interest for the Council in excluding Ficker's testimony, as he would surely have discussed the Council's record property tax hikes in his remarks, and the narrow tax relief the bill would provide for only one tier of taxpayers. Some of his opponents on the Council used the taxpayer-funded Council public relations office to issue statements praising themselves following the hearing Tuesday, despite being the ones who forced County residents to pay more than $10,000 in property taxes, starting in 2016.
Ficker is mobbed by supporters
outside the Council building earlier
this year
Ficker's exclusion raised eyebrows because the Council had all day to listen to testimony; this was an emergency session and there was no other item on the agenda, as anyone can confirm by examining it. The Council recently used a similar tactic to limit public participation in the debate over a proposed expansion of Old Angler's Inn, which left more observers in the hearing room than actual speakers.
Ficker's successful ballot
questions limiting Council terms
and tax increases have enraged
councilmembers, who prevented
him from testifying Tuesday
The tax bill passed 7-1 yesterday, with Councilmember Craig Rice voting against it, and Councilmember Tom Hucker absent. It remains uncertain if all or any taxpayers who pay more than $10,000 in property taxes will be ultimately be able to prepay and/or save money. But councilmembers were forced to reverse their opposition after other local jurisdictions quickly allowed their residents to prepay. Many of those paying that amount were only put over the $10,000 mark by the Council's record 2016 and 2017 tax hikes. While the Council took pains to blame Donald Trump, who is unpopular in blue Montgomery, it was the Council themselves who put so many of those affected by the federal tax changes into that position.